By Dwight Wakabayashi
Here is a breakdown of the main card of Saturday’s UFC 156 in Las Vegas, which opens with a very important flyweight contender bout.
Joseph Benavidez (16-3) vs. Ian McCall (11-3-1) – flyweight
This is an excellent match-up that will determine who holds the third spot in the division behind champion Demetrious Johnson and recent No. 1 contender John Dodson — or potentially gets the next title shot. Both men have already fought Johnson, with McCall getting a controversial draw in their first fight of two.
Benavidez is coming off his title-shot loss in September and needs to have a better performance in this fight against McCall to keep his place among the very top at flyweight. Although he lost by split decision, he actually looked slow against Johnson in Toronto. But many other fighters have too, so it’s hard to say if speed is really an issue with “Joe-Jitsu.”
Benavidez won’t have to waste as much energy in this fight chasing McCall around to get his hands on him, and that will allow him to maintain his power edge. McCall always brings a fight and will stand in front of Benavidez more than Johnson did. This one should be a very exciting fight.
The key for McCall is to use his speed, pace and smothering style to grind on Benavidez, but he needs to avoid fading late.
The winner of this fight will either get a fight with John Dodson or another fight for the title before the end of the year.
Jon Fitch (24-4-1) vs. Demian Maia (17-4) – welterweight
These two resurging veterans will put it on the line to see who is a contender and who is a pretender going forward in the welterweight division this year. While many of the top welterweights will be showcased at UFC 158 in March don’t count these two out as contenders.
Fitch brought his filthy top game back in his last win over young star Erick Silva for his best performance in years. His strength is in tight and on top but he will have to avoid Maia’s deadly submission game. Fitch may feel like he has more of an advantage on the feet but I am not so sure about that, and it makes it extremely interesting to see how each man will approach this fight.
Maia has looked extremely strong since his welterweight debut two fights ago, and he is on a legitimate run up the welterweight ranks. He disposed of Dong Hyun Kim and Rick Story in three minutes combined in his first two fights and brought a renewed aggression. Maia may want to be the one to initiate and get off first or he could be working from his back for most of the fight. Fitch has not lost by submission since his very first turn in the cage 11 years ago but if anyone may be able to do it, it’s Maia.
The winner of this fight will be watching UFC 158 very closely with a huge vested interest, and should get one of those winners in a contender fight later this year.
Alistair Overeem (36-11) vs. Antonio Silva (17-4) – heavyweight
It’s the return of “The Reem” this weekend as he gets another opportunity to prove that he can win clean when he faces the surging Antonio (Bigfoot) Silva. Overeem is a monster striker who does not lose very often but there is always an asterisk beside any Overeem win until the tests come in after the fight. Overeem has devastating punches, knees and kicks, and Silva may want to try his luck in a grappling match if he can take and keep him down.
Silva pulled off a mild upset when he knocked out Travis Browne in October and he will boost his stock incredibly if he can get a win against Overeem. Many have Overeem pegged as the next challenger to the title, and Silva could put a major wrench in that as well. Silva is a solid, all-around heavyweight who will want to take a page out of what Cain Velasquez did to him. If he can get on top of Reem and stay there, he may be able to hurt him and open up a submission win.
If Overeem wins he will get a shot at Cain Velasquez very soon, while Silva could see Junior dos Santos if he pulls off the upset.
Rashad Evans (17-2-1) vs. Antonio Rogerio Nogueira (20-5) – light heavyweight
This is a very interesting fight between two veterans who remain very relevant in the light-heavyweight division, as well as the division below where Rashad Evans is concerned.
Evans has an opportunity to open another title shot door with a win, with either a rematch against Jon Jones or a juicy match-up with Anderosn Silva at middleweight as his reward. Evans has not fought since his disappointing loss to Jones in April of last year and will need to re-establish his sharp speed and athleticism early to get the upper hand on Lil Nog. Evans is very good at what he does with his explosive wrestling and ability to land the big shot and he may have to make a statement to get the fight he wants to get next.
Nogueira is in a very generous and surprising spot with this opportunity after a win over the now retired Tito Ortiz over a year ago. Evans is quite the step up and it is the veteran Brazilian’s last chance to get himself within title reach with an upset win here. Rogerio can do it all, I’m just not so sure he can do it with the power, speed and efficiency that Evans can and he is in deep in this one. It’s tough to say where Nogueira will want to take this one for the best chance to win, but don’t be surprised if he tries takedown defence and technical striking as his first step.
Jose Aldo (21-1) vs. Frankie Edgar (15-3-1) – featherweight championship
Aldo has not lost a fight in seven years and has defended the title three times in a row since late 2010. He knocked out Chad Mendes with a devastating knee just over a year ago but injuries have kept him off since. Cage rust could be an issue and he will need to get right back into the flow quickly. Edgar is not a guy you want to get down on points to because he has excellent footwork and doesn’t slow down in the later rounds. Aldo’s skills are as good as Edgar’s everywhere you go in the cage, but leg kicks and take down defence will be his real keys to victory.
Edgar walks around at 155 pounds on any given day, so the weight cut should not hinder his performance much, if at all. He has some of the very best boxing and footwork in the business and has taken down guys who are bigger and better wrestlers than Aldo. If Edgar can stay on top of Aldo, he will minimize the Brazilian’s explosiveness and have a very good chance to win. Look for Edgar to use his boxing and footwork throughout, and put Aldo on his back every time he throws a significant trick.
Aldo may make the move up to lightweight regardless of the outcome of this fight to take on new and interesting challenges because he has struggled to make the 145 weight in his career. He could immediately challenge up for a champion vs. champion super-fight. While Edgar could do the same if he wins, he is not likely to get it if Benson Henderson is still the champion and look for him to defend against Chan Sung Jung later in the year.
Dwight Wakabayashi is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report UFC and regular contributor to Sportsnet.ca’s UFC section. Follow him on Twitter @wakafightermma.